Without a doubt, characters are the cornerstone of any anime. Even lacking a cohesive storyline, any anime can still be entertaining as long as it has the right characters. They provide most of the substance that makes the material work well, thus they may even rank higher than the story itself. Without characters, the story has no means of progressing.
How do characters make the anime what it is? They are the players, the actors, and to a certain extent, the directors for what will happen; but like human beings, they also have their own limitations. It is doubtful that Keitaro from Love Hina would be able to properly replace Gatts from Berserk because this is a limitation of his own character, as well as a conflict with the orientation of the story. Keitaro is a meek, likable and geeky character who works very well in a romance-comedy, but he cannot be a proper replacement for Gatts, who plays a lead role in one of the grittiest and most violent fantasies in anime. In short, a character’s personality needs to be properly suited for their environment; otherwise they can become the antithesis of the story, leading to contradiction and ultimately a bad anime.
This brings us to another question: how is a character best suited to the environment, and how will you know? The answer is development, as it allows insight into how characters fit a particular environment. This can be accomplished through a number of techniques:
1) Background. Flashbacks are used very often to shed light on just who the character is and why he is what he is by revealing events and information that occurred in the past. Techniques include memories, dreams and stories told by characters or by narrator commentary.
2) Interaction. Although more difficult to get information than background, interaction still provides quite a few facts about not just one, but many characters. Interactions involve more than one person, and depending on whether the communication is subtle or direct, a frightening amount of information can be gathered by seeing a character’s response, as well as how the response affects a particular character. This method can also illustrate character relationships, including gradual progression or deterioration. In Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, Priss’ brash personality conflicts with or scares away other people through her personal demeanor and body language; as a result, it is easy to notice that, as the anime continues, she gradually loosens up around her peers to the point where she becomes quite friendly.
3) Revelations. This method is not used quite as often as the others, but its purpose is different: show a striking change, whether a little or a lot, by the introduction of a sudden and dramatic event. The event changes the character’s environment or situation and can be a major plot twist that leads to a remarkable evolution in disposition or relationships. In Full Moon wo Sagashite, Takuto and Meroko tell Mitsuki that she has one year to live because of her throat tumor; this sudden bit of insight causes a rapid shift in Mitsuki’s behavior through her belief that the only way she can find the love of her life is to become a J-Pop idol.
However, does character development help to evolve into being atypical, or do the same stereotype remain that have been seen hundreds of times already? Allow me to elaborate. Atypical mannerisms and personality create a developed character that is unlike any other found in anime, like the title character of Great Teacher Onizuka.
On the flip side, stereotypical characters can be memorable but are usually mundane. They have been done so many times before, walking the same path others have. This is true when realized that a character from one anime can be transplanted into another without any necessary changes. Take Kusanagi Kei from Onegai Teacher and put him in place of Morisato Keiichi from Ah! My Goddess. Not only are the names similar, but their personalities are almost exactly alike: a shy, gentle guy who has never found love before, suddenly given a chance at the first love of his life. Stereotypical characters like these are not necessarily bad, but they probably will not find a special place in your heart or make the anime into anything beyond average because of undeveloped characters; a few stereotypes are truly enjoyable, but those are the exception rather than the rule. Atypical characters make for a much better anime than stereotypes can provide.
1) Protagonist. The protagonist, usually the main character, is also the most important. Protagonists are the main focus, and their intentions can be easily sympathized with; thus, they are usually referred to as the “good guys”. While standing against tyranny or the antagonists, the protagonist usually ends up winning… though not unscathed.
2) Antagonist. The character that conflicts with the protagonist, thus showing a distinct difference in both intentions and motivations. Often, they can be called the “bad guys”, but this is a misnomer; sometimes, their goals may be similar, but their methods or rationale are quite different. An example of an antagonist would be Mitaka from Maison Ikkoku; although not evil, Mitaka is at odds with Yusaku because both are after the affection of Kyoko. Like many other antagonists, Mitaka does not receive most of the focus.
3) Secondary. Also known as side characters, they have their roles but are never given the main focus of attention and can even be mere window dressing. From providing filler to helping the viewer learn more about the main character(s), minor characters in a support role are known as foil characters.
While it is always nice to know where a character fits as far as importance, the shape of his or her personality can have a large determination on that aspect. There are two options when it comes to shape: round and flat. Round characters are realistic and complex people who have multiple sides to their personalities and are often the main characters. We can see their complexities and contradictions, and the anime will reveal both the good and bad behavioral traits. A great example is Spike from Cowboy Bebop, who is shown to be a lazy and often-hungry bounty hunter who loves to make a few bucks but also has an intricate past in a crime syndicate and an intimate relationship with a mysterious woman. In the opposite corner, flat characters are one-dimensional and hollow; only one side of their personality is ever made known. Often, they will be side characters that only play limited roles, but be wary if they are not; if this is the case, the anime will likely not be very good.
Strongly related to personality shape is the degree which a character changes. Like round and flat characters, there are dynamic and static characters; similar to some degree, but also different. To properly divide them, dynamic characters are capable of change, growth and insight; by far, dynamic characters can be terrifyingly realistic characters that could easily be real people. Then you have static characters; they do not change during the course of the anime, nor learn anything important about themselves or do significantly change their opinions of everyone else around them. An excellent example of a static character would be Oe Kintaro from Golden Boy; although a lovable, intelligent, whacky character, he never changes.
So there you have it. Characters come in all different forms, each with their own level of development. When reviewing an anime, make sure to pay attention to characters since they are one of the most, if not the most, important aspect of an anime. Making note of these character features will be important when you are writing your reviews and can help to back up your words against dissenting opinion.